Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Rambo / *** (R)

John Rambo: Sylvester Stallone
Sarah: Julie Benz
School Boy: Matthew Marsden
Lewis: Graham McTavish
Michael Burnett: Paul Schulze

Lionsgate presents a film directed by Sylvester Stallone. Written by Art Monterastelli and Stallone. Based on the character created by David Morrell. Running time: 93 min. Rated R (for strong graphic bloody violence, sexual assaults, grisly images and language).

“Remember the face of your father.” – Roland the gunslinger from Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower” book series.

If ever there was a gunslinger, it is John Rambo. He is a man of few words and even fewer facial expressions, but give him a high caliber weapon and he can rock your world. That was true with his first film appearance in “First Blood,” although he certainly didn’t show the penchant for actually killing people at that time that he would in the subsequent films that took his name. In his fourth turn, some 20 years since number three, writer-director-star Sylvester Stallone takes the character’s role as a killing machine to new heights with a kill ratio nearly three times higher than any previous outing. The supporting characters have tripled their kill ratios. And I can’t decide whether this is the best Smith & Wesson commercial I’ve ever seen or the most disparaging.

Stallone shows he has a bone to pick this time around by centering the events amidst the genocidal atrocities being practiced in Burma. Living a detached, secluded life as a snake wrangler in Thailand, Rambo is asked by American Missionaries to provide boat passage into Burma so they can bring much needed aid to the poor villagers of that country who have been terrorized by pirates and warring military factions. When word comes back that a Burmese military force has attacked the village where Rambo took the missionaries, he is again enlisted to take mercenaries to the same village to rescue the missionaries. Little do the mercs know that without their stoic boatman, their mission hasn’t a hope of succeeding.

By keeping the story simple, Stallone very much remembers the face of Rambo’s father, author David Morrell, who crafted an uncomplicated story of a Vietnam vet who simply did not fit into a peaceful society that neither understood nor embraced him. In the two follow ups to “First Blood,” Rambo found himself the victim of other people’s greed and other people’s wars, and he had an emotional epiphany forced upon his character rather than allowing it to flow naturally from the story. In “Rambo,” the character’s greatest emotional revelation is that he is good at killing bad guys, and if an opportunity to do so should present itself, than he should embrace it.

This simple approach sets the stage for all out, wall-to-wall action. But what Stallone produces enters into a new breed of action. It has the structure of a typical action picture: here’s your reluctant hero, here’s your bad guys hurting good people, the hero saves the day by killing all the bad guys. But the execution is cut from another mold all together. I liken it to war movie violence versus action movie violence. It used to be all movies with action used action movie violence, something of a cartoonish nature that was easily discernable from real life violence. Then, after the Vietnam War became our country’s first televised military conflict, the violence in war movies became more realistic and less fun. “Rambo” is like an action movie that depicts modern war violence. It isn’t as fun, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The first two thirds of the film don’t stray too far from what you might expect from a Rambo rescue mission. Then in the final act the film becomes a total blood bath. The carnage displayed could make Quentin Tarantino look away. The final battle is like a symphony of guts and viscera, severed limbs and exploding heads, anguished pain and brutal instinct. It could be described as a collage of violence, but there is none of the beauty of violence that can be witness in films like “Shoot ‘Em Up” or “Kill Bill, Vol. 1.” It is a dirty, grimy, undignified presentation of violence as something used instinctually for survival under the most brutal of conditions.

John Mueller, who holds the Woody Hayes Chair of National Security Studies at Ohio State University, put together a death chart for the Rambo pictures (seen here) that compiles kill stats from all four Rambo movies. He charts things like number of people killed by Rambo, number of people killed by Rambo with his shirt off, number of people killed per minute, and number of sex scenes. Looking at Mueller’s figures it is easy to see the great disparity in kill numbers between “Rambo” and its predecessors, but it does not suggest the grizzly, brutal nature of all those deaths. I think what Stallone is going for with his horrific overkill is to draw attention to the very real horrors of the genocide being practiced in Burma. He doesn’t spend any time on underlying political details, which is wise when considering how poorly the pulpit fit John Rambo in previous films. But relying on typical action movie violence might lead people to believe that Burma is merely a stage for a made-up story.

There are certainly people who will find the nature of the violence in “Rambo” unsettling. But Stallone wants you to leave the theater feeling something other than just entertained. Instead of telling you to be disgusted by the violence the Burmese government is committing against its people, Stallone shows you just how brutal any military-based violence can be. To some degree, the nature of the character of Rambo is at odds with the nature of the film’s very message. But along with his return to the Rocky character in 2006’s “Rocky Balboa”, “Rambo” is strong evidence that Sylvester Stallone is still a formidable filmmaker who can offer audiences something beyond their expectations.

A note on the clip. This should be a red band trailer, meaning the trailer itself is rated R. It was made when the film was called "John Rambo."

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Cloverfield / *** (PG-13)

Rob Hawkins: Michael Stahl-David
Lily Ford: Jessica Lucas
Marlena Diamond: Lizzy Caplan
Hud Platt: T.J. Miller
Jason Hawkins: Mike Vogel
Beth McIntyre: Odette Yustman

Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Matt Reeves. Written by Drew Goddard. Running time: 90 min. Rated PG-13 (for violence, terror and disturbing images).

“Cloverfield” may very well be the most anticipated January release since the re-release of “Star Wars” in 1997. If the title seems unfamiliar, well that was all part of the promotional game. Paramount ran one of the slickest advertising campaigns since “The Blair Witch Project” with viral Web sites, false rumors, false titles, an intriguing poster depicting a headless Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, a trailer that may have just been a gimmick and total mystery over just what the movie was about. Some speculated that it might have had some connection to producer J.J. Abrams’ hit television show “Lost.” Eventually the title was leaked along with the fact that it was some sort of “Godzilla”-styled monster movie.

With a build up like that, it would be hard for the film to live up to the hype. It doesn’t quite, but in its own right it is a thrilling adventure that doesn’t cheat on its premise. I am not revealing too much by confirming that it is a monster flick about a giant creature attacking New York City seen entirely through the camcorder of some partygoers trying to survive the melee. This point-of-view approach is a gimmick that nearly brings the movie down by trapping the filmmakers into a style not conducive to moving the story along, but once the monster finally attacks the city the momentum of the action kicks the format into gear.

Director Matt Reeves and screenwriter Drew Goddard (both veterans of Abrams’ television projects “Felicity”, “Alias”, and “Lost”) are wise to realize the key to telling a monster story from the point of view of some of the victims running away in the street is to give these characters lives outside of the attack. However, they spend too much time establishing these fairly basic characters in an extended going away party for the first twenty minutes of the film.

We meet Rob (Michael Stahl-David, NBC’s “The Black Donnellys”), who is being thrown the party after taking a job in Japan. Beth (Odette Yustman, ABC’s “October Road”) is Rob’s best friend; estranged since an intimate encounter they had a few weeks prior. The party is thrown by Rob’s brother Jason (Mike Vogel, “Poseidon”) and his brother’s girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas, “The Covenant”). Hud (T.J. Miller, ABC’s “Carpoolers”) is the best friend handling the camerawork. And Marlena (Lizzy Caplan, CBS’s “The Class”) is a stranger invited to the party by an acquaintance. These characters could have been introduced in half the time, but once the monster attack starts, the action comes quickly, and the events unfold in a fascinating manner.

The opening moments of the attack on the city evoke memories of 9/11 with that particular handheld version of chaos and the destruction of the world’s richest city’s stone and concrete monuments. Then we see early news reports that reflect speculations of what might be happening versus the unimaginable truth of which we are all aware. The characters give the sense that they’ve been through this before, which is probably true for some of the actors. Then Reeves teases the audience and characters with very brief glimpses of the creature. The adrenaline is up and never really drops from that point on. There are some amazing shots captured with the handheld photography, such as the best shot of the creature in the first half of the film when poor Hud just narrowly escapes death by stomping when ducking into a subway station.

The handheld camera work and personal point of view shots give the film another connection to “The Blair Witch Project” beyond its inventive Internet advertising campaign. The bouncing camera work gives that same eeriness and feeling that events are out of the control of the characters. It could also cause problems for audience members with motion sickness. Also like “Blair Witch,” the characters offer the audience only their own personal knowledge into the events they are witnessing. The filmmakers wisely avoid the typical disaster movie character who exists only to explain how and why the crisis has come about.

There are some plot contrivances to keep the characters in peril. Most obviously, the main group is separated from Beth when the story begins, and Rob feels he must stay in the city to save her. This works perfectly fine with the love story that is established between these two, but the other characters are presented with several opportunities to escape their fates without taking them. Just a little bit more imagination could have provided them with logical reasons to stay in Manhattan.

Contrivances aside, “Cloverfield” makes for an exciting ride. It isn’t necessarily a fright fest, but it is fast-paced and intense. The filmmakers come up with some lasting images to go along with their simple story and they don’t complicate their premise with unnecessary explanations of the action. “Cloverfield” is evidence of the lasting impression “The Blair Witch Project” has had on the world of filmmaking, but it provides the thrills and action some claim that horror picture lacked. And with no forced conclusions, the door is certainly open for whatever sequels the box office receipts demand.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Best of 2007

Each year I have the urge to defend the past year’s cinematic output. I spout phrases like “this was one of the best years for film in recent history,” or “at first I thought it wouldn’t be a good year, but then I looked at the films I’d seen…” After seven years of writing my opinion of film down for friends at first and others now, I have come to the conclusion that saying this year “was a good year in film” or that year was a “bad” year is really missing the point of what I’m doing. I love movies and every year is a good year. Some years I have to look harder than others for the best. Sometimes I have to look in different places. But cinema is good, and will always be good. My job is to help you discover that as well.

The best films seen by me in 2007 are as follows:

1. No Country for Old Men. After suffering a bit of a slump with recent efforts like “Intolerable Cruelty” and “The Ladykillers”, the Coen Brothers returned to greatness this year with a dark masterpiece in the vein of their first masterpiece “Blood Simple”. But “No Country for Old Men” shows the maturity these filmmaking geniuses have gained through the years. Unlike “Blood Simple” the three men involved in the crimes of this story don’t find themselves there through a series of mistakes and mishaps. This is a film about men who make deliberate and confident choices to find themselves in the violent predicaments of their dark world.

The Coen Brothers once again display their ability to provide unique characters in utterly unique situations and make them seem as natural as breathing. From a struggle on a tile floor to a rushed defense against an attacking dog, an unusual method of execution to an oddly timed car accident, the Coen’s find a beautiful way to present a world that reflects our greatest fears and insecurities about our ability to affect our own fate. And they spin their tale without ever having to force the audience along any paths we do not wish to go. This is the best film of the year.

2. Juno. I wanted so much to place this film at the top of my list, but I could not deny the power of assured confidence flowing beneath the surface of “No Country for Old Men”. So “Juno” remains the best comedy of the year in a year where the gross-out sex comedy evolved into entertainment with a brain. “Juno” is not so much “gross-out”, but takes the same sassy attitude toward sex as “Knocked Up” and “Superbad”. And its lead actress Ellen Page carries all the confidence of the Coen Brothers’ years of experience in her performance of a 16-year-old who finds herself with an unwanted pregnancy.

J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney are brilliant as Juno’s parents, who are responsible enough to recognize the severity of their child’s situation, but supportive enough to realize that dealing with the unexpected turns life takes are requirements for growing up. Juno decides to give the child up for adoption to a couple during her pregnancy and learns that being an adult and being a grownup are two different things. Director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody create a positive movie about a potentially debilitating life situation with wit and love through characters we would like to know and have in our lives.

3. The Lives of Others. Winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar last year, “The Lives of Others” is a terse German thriller set within the walls of East Berlin during the final days of fascist rule. The German Secret Police made it a practice to spy on its own citizens creating an atmosphere of paranoia and deception that played a part in its own demise. The film plays as a bit of a cautionary tale to other governments that may wish to impose upon its citizens’ privacy (“wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more”) and reminds us that individuals can be much more dangerous to government than governments that feel otherwise can be to individuals.

The story follows a secret policeman who is particularly good at his job of listening to people. He is assigned to keep tabs on a writer who has always been a government supporter. The job seems to have more to do with the fact that the writer’s lover is also the mistress of a high ranking official than that he may be a genuine threat, and before too long the policeman begins to like his subject. When it turns out that the writer is writing anti-government articles and publishing them in West Germany, the police officer decides to cover for him. The tension mounts and soon you are witnessing one of the great quite thrillers. Ulrich Mühe provided a career defining performance as the policeman before succumbing to stomach cancer in July of last year.

4. Red Road. Another voyeuristic thriller is found in this British picture that barely received a U.S. release last spring. Once again the main character is a police officer who spends her days watching people who are unaware they are being watched. Jackie sits in front of a screen of video monitors relaying signals from various areas around the city. When she sees a crime or suspicious activity, she makes a call to dispatch and any wrong doings are broken up or even prevented. One day she sees a man on one of her monitors who doesn’t appear to be doing anything wrong, but she begins to follow his every movement through the city and eventually tries to make contact in person. Her true motive for this stalking is surprising.

Kate Dickie provides a riveting performance as Jackie. Writer-director Andrea Arnold slowly reveals the details of the plot so the audience is well immersed into Jackie’s action long before we understand her purpose. Why is she so interested in this man? Does she know him? Is she attracted to him? Did he hurt her? Or rape her? The answer echoes with the truth of emotion and is truly unexpected. “Red Road” hurts on a level that reflects the overcast days in which it is set, and somehow the release of that pain in its final moments also seems to heal.

5. Grindhouse. “Grindhouse” was by far the most exciting and unusual film going experience of the year. I often refer to the “experience” of seeing a film, but rarely does it apply so much as it does to this film. “Grindhouse” is an experience. It is cult directors Quentin Tarantino’s and Robert Rodriguez’s recreation of the experience of seeing an exploitation double feature from the ‘70’s. For it each director made his own full length feature in the style of a ‘70’s exploitation genre picture.

Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror” relives the z-grade horror flick crossed with a disaster epic and government conspiracy pic. Tarantino’s “Death Proof” is his version of a slasher flick mixed with a female empowerment picture and car chase epic. Each film works on its own and both live up to the quality cult films fans expect from each director. They are worth watching for their own merits, but as they were originally presented in the “Grindhouse” release they were only part of an overall experience that included scratched prints, bad acting, deleted scenes and trailers for other films in just as bad taste. The original “Grindhouse” release included fake trailers for non-existent films which ran before and between the two feature films.

Although it flopped at the box office, the underground response has sparked rumors of many spinoffs from the “Grindhouse” experience, including a feature-length film from Rodriguez’s fake trailer for “Machete”; a feature of Edgar Wright’s fake trailer “Don’t”, with no stars and bad overdubbing; and Eli Roth’s next release “Trailer Trash”, a feature of nothing but fake trailers due out in August.

6. Eastern Promises. The renaissance of director David Cronenberg continues with his latest masterpiece “Eastern Promises”. This follow-up to his masterful “A History of Violence” even utilizes the acting strength of that film’s same lead actor Viggo Mortensen. Once again in this film Mortensen’s character is tied to the mob, this time the Russian mob in London. He is a “driver” who has a knack for cleaning up his boss’s messes, or more accurately the messes of his boss’s son. When a midwife (Naomi Watts) discovers a diary on the person of one of those messes, she goes looking for the family of the baby that mess delivered before she died. She finds herself to be of great interest to Mortensen and his boss.

With “Eastern Promises” Cronenberg steps even further away from the sex horror fantasies with which he began his career by producing a solid crime thriller. Mortensen turns in a fearless performance as the “cleaner” and proves his teaming with Cronenberg is more than a one hit partnership. The plot does not follow the line one might expect, but never strays far from the expectations of the audience or the needs of the characters.

7. 3:10 to Yuma. Director James Mangold and stars Russell Crowe and Christian Bale had a little to say about the hasty reports of the demise of the American western this year with one of the best entries into the genre in the past decade. “3:10 to Yuma” may be a remake of the Glenn Ford classic, but is also a classic in its own right. “Yuma” delivers on the two fronts that have become the staple of the western genre over the years: action and pathos. Rarely has one western delivered both in such even-handed doses.

Bale plays a desperate man who is deputized to help escort the outlaw played by Crowe to federal prison. The two men find a dichotomy in their lives that shows how blurred the lines between good and bad can be. The men themselves may not be so different, but it is the choices they make that define who they really are. Ben Foster also provides an award-worthy performance as Crowe’s second in command, who tries to free him from custody.

8. 300. The new cinema trend of style-as-art took another leap forward this year with several entries, including “Grindhouse”, “Beowulf”, and the animated critic’s darling “Persepolis” (unseen by me at the time of this posting, but eagerly awaited). But perhaps the most influential cinema-of-style release was the surprise blockbuster “300”. A visual masterpiece, “300” is an adaptation of a comic book that depicts the stand of 300 Spartan soldiers against one million Persians in the Battle of Thermopylae, circa 480 B.C. Like the comic book it is a play in visual exaggeration, fitting for its mythical subject matter.

“300” is filled with imagery that could once never even have been conceived of on film, such as the Oracle that seems to swim in erotic throes through the air, or the giant King Xerxes of the Persian Army, or the mutant Spartan betrayer Ephialtes. Much of the action of the film takes place in slow motion, allowing the audience to fully appreciate the richness of the visual detail and unique atmosphere created by the CGI enhancements. You can almost feel the sweat and effort put into the battle by its participants through mere observation.

9. Hairspray. There is probably no other film this year I expected to see on my top ten list less than this adaptation of the Broadway musical based on the John Waters indie-cult film “Hairspray”. But frankly, it was the most fun I can remember having in a movie theater this year. It is a movie infused with the bubble-gum pop mentality that would be off-putting in any other genre but the musical, and is usually insufferable even in that context. But the performers and production design insist so earnestly in their cheer that it becomes undeniable. And the laughs continue to build from the opening titles all the way until the end credits.

Perhaps the most astonishing accomplishment of “Hairspray” is that so many of those laughs are birthed from something deeper than the candy-coated surface of the film. Set in Baltimore during the ‘60’s, it tackles issues of civil rights and sexuality quite bluntly for such a nice movie. I found its socially subversive nature to be quite an invigorating flavor to mix with its bubble-gum pop sentimentality. But above all it is great fun.

10. Zodiac. In my initial review of “Zodiac”, the character study on the three primary investigators of the real life Zodiac killings that terrified the people of the San Francisco Bay area for nearly two decades, I tried to err on the side of caution with my star rating of 3½. I was blown away by the film, but thought my initial reaction might have been overlooking the deliberate procedural pace of the film and an ending which some might find anticlimactic. Since the killer was never caught, the real events remain without closure. And as I reflected on the film in the days following my review, I began to feel I had sold the film slightly short. Such is the danger of star ratings.

I am confident in declaring that director David Fincher’s nuanced and meticulously detailed account of the Zodiac investigation is one of the finest achievements in film this year. Fincher never takes the easy opportunity to pander to the horror of the events with some slasher serial killer approach, yet he still achieves an amazing amount of suspense by investing the audience in the investigators’ lives. The three principals are granted wonderfully complex interiors by the performances of Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., and Mark Ruffalo. “Zodiac” is a psychologically epic thriller that truly lives up to its tag line “There’s more than one way to lose your life to a killer.”

Special Jury Prize
In most juried film festivals there is a best picture winner of sorts and a special jury prize given for films that the jury would have liked to have given the top prize to as well. Well, with so many great films out there it is no surprise I can’t fit all my favorites into just ten slots. The films in the following list could easily replace any of the films in my top ten list.

American Gangster. Ridley Scott’s look at the criminal life of real life drug lord Frank Lucas is another wonderful character study within a crime procedural. It is a measure of a man that dares to be honest in a corrupt system of justice and the measure of a man who dares to apply simple but solid business standards to a crime system that has become more concerned with its own politics than the business of making money. That the two men measure up to each other and tower above those around them may not be a surprise, but their stories are ultimately fascinating.

Knocked Up. Another example of the sex comedy elevated to the level of intelligence and art, “Knocked Up” was the sleeper hit of the summer that you could proudly proclaim to enjoy and yet still wouldn’t feel comfortable watching in front of your parents, no matter your age. The non-typical casting of Seth Rogan in the lead of a romantic comedy is but one of the breaks from tradition this lesson in the psychology of the male mindset has to offer, yet the story still hits the same notes of humor, seriousness and sentimentality that makes for a well-rounded movie experience.

Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman. Taking a page from the lesser known historical figures, “The Last Hangman” tells the story of Albert Pierrepoint, England’s best known executioner. His story is told simply with another wonderful performance by the great Timothy Spall. Spall portrays Pierrepoint as a man without expectations from the people around him, yet he unwittingly becomes a hero through the simple act of doing his job as a hangman for the state in the best manner he can. When he is commissioned to execute Nazis after WWII, he becomes a national hero of sorts. Later he becomes locally reviled for being the man everyone knows is responsible for the deaths of their wayward children. His true heroic act, however was to bring some humanity to a practice that is utterly inhumane. This is the kind of movie that makes you want to crack open a history book or two to look for those unsung figures which added to the richness of human record.

Stephanie Daley. There was another movie about teenage pregnancy this year, other than the wonderfully pleasant “Juno”. “Stephanie Daley” is not the humorous look at growing up that film is. It is a powerful drama about a teen who gives birth in a bathroom stall during a school ski trip. She claims not to have known she was pregnant and that the baby was stillborn. Tilda Swinton plays the woman who is brought in to determine if the girl capable of standing trial. Swinton’s character is dealing with the loss of her own child due to miscarriage. It is a remarkable character study of the two women. Amber Tamblyn does a good job as Stephanie of not allowing the audience to know whether she is lying or not.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley. In this world of violence and conflict I often find myself asking how these people can justify their choices to take innocent life for their allegedly righteous causes. “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” comes as a sort of answer to that question. It tells the story of two brothers in the early 20th century who join the IRA to oppose the oppressive British rule. Their divergent paths allow the audience to see the reasoning to both sides of the conflict and Ken Loach’s heartfelt direction and Paul Laverty’s script make it easier to understand how people can make the painfully drastic choice to use violence to service their righteous causes. The scene where one brother must take a friend out to execution speaks deeply to the conviction it takes to truly stand up for your beliefs.

The primary purpose for this list is to inform my readers of the great films out there for them to see, either in theaters, on video, or soon to be. So I couldn’t let all the other good to great films slip by without mention. Here are some films that for some intangible reason I felt were just a step below the rest I’ve mentioned so far.

Julie Christie gives a heartbreaking performance in Away from Her as a woman with Alzheimer’s who forgets who her husband is after he puts her in a special care facility. The Bourne series comes to a spectacular conclusion in The Bourne Ultimatum with the most impressive action sequences of the year. Ashley Judd brings creepy to a new level in Bug, a paranoia thriller based on the hit play. Days of Glory was another contender for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar last year about four North African men who enlisted in the French army during WWII. The Golden Compass introduces a new fantasy universe on the same level as that of “Star Wars” and “The Lord of the Rings”. Joseph Gordon Levitt continues his track record of choosing smart roles in independent movies in The Lookout, a modern noir where he plays a bank janitor with memory problems who is recruited for a heist. Michael Clayton saw the return of the great legal thriller with George Clooney as a law firm’s “fixer” who finds himself on the wrong side of a big company suit. Angelina Jolie reminds audiences of her subtle skills as an actress with her portrayal of Marianne Pearl, the widow of political prisoner Daniel Pearl, in A Mighty Heart. Werner Herzog shows his skill as both a documentarian and dramatic filmmaker by remaking his documentary “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” as Rescue Dawn about an American fighter pilot shot down in Vietnam who was taken prisoner and escaped from the Vietcong. And Stardust is a beautiful grownup fairytale with fantasy elements and whimsical characters telling of a glorious romance.

Great docs
I didn’t see as many documentaries as I usually do this year but a couple made for some great non-fiction viewing. No End in Sight details the often frustrating history of the war in Iraq without taking any particular side; however, its conclusion is all too evident in its title. And Michael Moore takes a page from Al Gore’s playbook with his latest documentary Sicko. Instead of the outright political attacks of “Fahrenheit 9/11”, he presents his problems with the U.S. health care industry as moral issues.

Great animation
I did see just as much animation as I usually do, but most of what I saw was uninspired compared to these three films. Robert Zemekis makes his latest proposal for what the future of animation holds with his CGI take on the classic tale of Beowulf. While the tale itself might fall into typical fantasy fare, its execution is highly kinetic and makes for a thrilling ride, especially in 3-D. Like much of Japanese animation, the plot of Paprika threatens to boggle the mind of the average American viewer with its contemplations on technological psychology, but it is filled with all the visual excellence that has come to be expected from the best Japanese artists. And with Ratatouille Pixar Animation Studios once again prove why they have become the standard bearers for animation today.

I also greatly enjoyed 28 Weeks Later, As You Like It, Black Sheep, Black Snake Moan, Blades of Glory, Breach, Enchanted, Fido, Hot Fuzz, I Am Legend, Meet the Robinsons, Shoot ‘Em Up, Sunshine, Superbad, Surf’s Up, Talk To Me, and Year of the Dog.

Monday, January 07, 2008

No Country for Old Men / **** (R)

Sheriff Ed Tom Bell: Tommy Lee Jones
Anton Chigurh: Javier Bardem
Llewelyn Moss: Josh Brolin
Carla Jean Moss: Kelly Macdonald
Carson Wells: Woody Harrelson

Miramax Films and Paramount Vantage present a film written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy. Running time: 122 min. Rated R (for strong graphic violence and some language).

In the opening moments of Joel and Ethan Coen’s adaptation of novelist Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men,” you hear the rough-edged voice of Tommy Lee Jones explaining what it meant to be a Texas sheriff in the “old days.” He takes great pride in the fact that both he and his father sheriffed towns of their own at the same time, and he mentions that some of the “old timers” didn’t even have to wear guns. His voice is familiar and comforting. His matter-of-fact delivery almost hides the unique poetry of a yarn spun by a man wise only in what he knows but with the particular flavor of a great playwright. It tastes good to hear his words.

Then you see the actions of a bad man. He is Anton Chigurh (sounds almost like “sugar”), and you can tell he is a killer just by looking at him. This fact is undisputable long before you hear the cold chill of his subtly accented baritone voice. When he kills a sheriff’s deputy on the floor of a police station, you’re reminded of how the Coen Brothers can capture the most unique images and make them seem as natural as the rising sun. But other than this, you will barely even notice that you are watching a film at all. For the next two hours you are transported entirely into the Coen Brothers’ world, where the characters and situations are as unique as a fingerprint and yet as real as the feel of your bed covers as you pull them up each morning, convincing yourself that you are just keeping warm instead of delaying the inevitability getting up and starting the day.

Josh Brolin plays Llewelyn Moss, a man who stumbles onto the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad and quite consciously convinces himself that taking a satchel full of money from the scene is an act he can get away with. You see the events unfold naturally, not quite knowing at first what connects Moss to the sheriff and the killer. Crime and punishment surely factor into it, but there aren’t the pressures of typical story structure bearing down on the plot. Expectations are elminated and you’re allowed to just observe what happens, never thinking there is anything to be done to stop these events from unfolding.

Sure, you can make guesses as to who might end up killing who and how, but you never once feel anything must or even might play out according to your own predictions. This makes Jones’s sheriff the closest to you as you evaluate what you are seeing like a police officer would, trying to make some sense of it even though you’ve already seen who dunnit and how. It is the why that is elusive and yet just as important as the how. There are times when you know exactly how things are going to go down because the Coen’s take their time, but even then the events fascinate you.

In some ways you are like the killer Chigurh because the deliberate pace of the film lets you observe so dispassionately you can relate to his simple, if immoral, code. And then sudden rationality slams into you like an unseen car at an intersection, and you realize any philosophy, let alone any action, can be rationalized. This makes it easy to understand Llewelyn’s ill-advised actions. He finds the satchel, tries to be safe about it and is only taking it from immoral people anyway. That gives him as much right to it as anyone. Plus Llewelyn is the guy who can stir your blood. He carries all your anxiety and tension. When he is being chased by a pit bull, you are telling him to fire his weapon long before he’s able to.

Visually you witness a beautiful and stark Texas landscape, a world where borders between two countries are insignificant. Llewelyn can’t escape from his destiny or his plain dumb luck. There is no difference between the two here. Yet the beauty of the world is still striking. Is life this dreary and bright at once? It is fairly humorless, but not without its ironies. And you realize it is the codes we live by that define our lives while the beautiful world around merely observes.

There is commentary about our world that can be drawn from the story of these men, but much more interesting is the story itself and the way it unfolds. There is a sense here that nothing matters. Certainly the sheriff’s conclusions bring him at least half way to that sentiment, although the efforts are important. Somehow, though, this brand of nihilism never becomes overly oppressive. And you know that there are skills in spinning a yarn that don’t necessarily involve placing the audience directly in the action, but can be achieved detached from the story with careful management of images, pacing, character development and a story that doesn’t impose itself upon its individual elements. This is filmmaking at its finest.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Juno / **** (PG-13)

Juno MacGuff: Ellen Page
Paulie Bleecker: Michael Cera
Vanessa Loring: Jennifer Garner
Mark Loring: Jason Bateman
Mac MacGuff: J.K. Simmons
Bren MacGuff: Allison Janney
Leah: Olivia Thirlby

Fox Searchlight presents a film directed by Jason Reitman. Written by Diablo Cody. Running time: 92 min. Rated PG-13 (for mature thematic material, sexual content and language).

“Juno” is a warm, sweet, funny, witty, sharp, smart comedy about growing up when it is jump-started by an unplanned teenage pregnancy. The movie stars a bright new rising star in the title role named Ellen Page. Some may remember the praise I showered on her for her shocking performance in the thriller “Hard Candy” where a young girl turns the tables and delivers the ultimate revenge on an Internet predator. “Juno” shows audiences the sunnier side of this great new talent, even if that sun just “shines out (her) butt.”

Juno is a teen who approaches life with a quick sardonic wit. She is clearly an intelligent girl who is well aware that her maturity level is lagging behind her enlightened views of the world. She talks in a series of slang and pop culture references with biting commentary on the world she observes around her. But she is not sure of her place in it yet. The dialogue she practices and inspires in the people around her is like a foreign language at times that hides hers and others’ insecurities, and is a fascinating romp for the attentive audience member. I heard phrases in this film I could never have imagined, and yet enlightened me in the lives of the people in this film and my own life.

Juno and the people that surround her are those people you know who inspire a smile every time they walk into the room. Her parents are two of the most positive role models to find their way onto the big screen in quite some time. J.K. Simmons (“Spider-Man” trilogy) portrays her father Mac as a man who fears for the predicament his daughter finds herself in, but like so many bumps in life, faces it out of his unbiased love for her. He sees life with a great sense of humor as well, rare for a father in film.

Juno’s stepmother is another rarity in Hollywood filmmaking. She is not some evil replacement mom. Allison Janney (“The West Wing” TV series) is perfectly cast as Bren, who can be abrupt but again with a sense of humor to match her husband’s. The two make a believable couple with their similar outlooks on life, and she defends Juno with the same motherly ferocity as she does her own biological child. She may only be a nail technician, but don’t get on the wrong side of her in a match of wits.

One of the greatest laughs comes when Mac asks his daughter who the father is, as if he is preparing his revenge against the kid. When she tells him it is Paulie Bleeker, his reaction is “I didn’t think he had it in him.” Bleeker is a sweet kid. Michael Cera makes his second great impression of the year in the role following the summer’s surprise hit “Superbad”. I loved how with very little dialogue Cera was able to get me behind him one hundred percent. I wanted to scream at Juno to open her eyes and realize what a special guy he was. He is one of those kids that would just disappear into the background in high school, and who deserves to be in the foreground. The filmmakers wisely never place him there.

Juno decides she cannot go through with an abortion because the baby already has fingernails. She and her friend Leah (Olivia Thirlby, “United 93”) find an ad in the Penny Saver for a couple looking to adopt a child. The Lorings, who placed the ad, are tactfully portrayed by Jennifer Garner (“The Kingdom”) and Jason Bateman (“Arrested Development” TV series) as upper crust yuppies. It was a relief that their storyline does not go in a more typical direction, but the filmmakers tease you with their story by showing everything about them from Juno’s point of view.

I’ve twice praised the filmmakers’ approach in the past two paragraphs when they deserve much more praise than that. The director is Jason Reitman—son of filmmaker Ivan Reitman—who adds this film to a growing list of smart cinematic accomplishments that include “Orange County” and the delightful “Thank You For Smoking”. Diablo Cody is a relative newcomer on the screenwriting front, but anyone with such a keen sense of human behavior and sharp ear for funny dialogue has long career ahead.

“Juno” comes at the end of a year that saw a revolution in comedies about teens and young adults and their transitions into adulthood. Movies like “Knocked Up” and “Superbad” have been labeled “gross-out” sex comedies but have approached the subject with intelligence and biting wit. These comedies have been hard ‘R’ ratings. “Juno” belongs among this group of films, although it is slightly tamer than those two. But it comes with what some people might find to be a lenient ‘PG-13’ rating. For the first time this year, I find myself applauding the MPAA for their rating of a film. There is no reason why teenagers themselves shouldn’t watch a smart film about teenage sex and the ramifications of such activities. There is nothing your teenage children are going to learn here that they aren’t likely to learn themselves in school. This is an intelligent look at a real problem that teenagers may face that doesn’t ridicule it or run away from the seriousness of it, and yet it is still intensely funny.

Now that I’ve stood on my soapbox, I must return to the film itself and try to express what a wonderful cinematic experience it is. In some ways it is the greatest films that are the hardest for the critic to write about. I don’t possess the writing talent to do this movie justice, so you will have to trust me when I tell you that this is a must see movie. “Juno” is by far the best comedy of the year, and quite possibly the best film period.